Commentary: Rwandan genocide trial in Kansas has unsettled issues

Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez
Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez MCT

Now what? It’s the question federal prosecutors need to answer in the case of the Topeka man they believe participated in the Rwandan genocide of the early 1990s.

The government lost its case last Tuesday. The five-week trial in Wichita drew surprisingly little attention given that federal prosecutors said it was the first criminal prosecution in the United States that needed to prove Rwandan genocide.

But the jury was only convinced 84-year-old Lazare Kobagaya lied about where he was living between 1993 and 1995.

He said Burundi, his native country. The federal government believed he was really in Rwanda, riling Hutus to murder Tutsis.

Kobagaya was also accused of lying on immigration paperwork, of not answering affirmatively to a query if he ever persecuted anyone or committed a crime for which he was not arrested.

The lawyers on both sides and the defendant’s family were being closed-mouthed after the case concluded. It’s unclear if the jury’s decision is even enough to deport him.

The whole saga was an incredibly expensive undertaking. Multiple trips to Rwanda were necessary, and dozens of witnesses were brought to Wichita for the trial.

Some were people convicted of participating in the 1994 slaughter of Tutsis. Authorities think between 500,000 to 800,000 were killed in a three-month span.

Kobagaya, ethnically a Hutu, became a U.S. citizen in 2006, settling in Kansas because a son was a Wichita dentist.

Defense argued Kobagaya’s wife is Tutsi, and that in fact, he had protected her and other Tutsis. His lawyers noted, too, that a son filled out his immigration forms, because the father couldn’t understand much English at the time. His lack of fluency, they contended, also disrupted his ability to fully comprehend the immigration questions.

There was also the complication of witnesses lined up for the case. In some cases, defense said, prisoners were being encouraged by Rwandan officials to implicate others.

So can a trial in Kansas be fair if the witnesses are being pulled from a country so racked by corruption and manipulation?

The United States, of course, has every right to question his U.S. citizenship. But if he is to be thought a war criminal, let him face those charges as well, fully put forth, not circumvented via immigration law.

This attempt at end-running around the heavier war crimes charges failed. Now, Kobagaya has the stain of the trial and the ongoing possibility of deportation, while the government still believes it has a war criminal in the country.

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